Photo: GAA.ie (Sportsfile)
Our FBD campaign is over and arguably it’s just as well, seeing as we’ve a fairly hefty list of injured and unavailable players as we head into the start of this year’s National Football League. Our 2016 NFL Division One campaign starts for us on Sunday week (January 31st) down at Páirc Uí Rinn against Cork (throw-in 2pm).
Last Sunday’s match was particularly expensive for us injury-wise as it looks to have robbed us of three players who most likely would have started against Cork. The Mayo News reports today (paper and digital versions) that Keith Higgins, Kevin Keane and Conor Loftus are all likely to miss out on the Cork match. Keith and Kevin are due to have scans on their respective knee and shoulder problems while Conor’s problem is hamstring-related.
With so many players already out through injury or club commitments, this means that the fit-and-ready-for-action cohort is a bit on the low side. The Mayo News has done a count and reckons that only around twenty lads will be okay to train this week, which isn’t exactly where you want to be as the serious action starts to loom into view.
The major lesson I took away from last Sunday’s game was how youth, experience and – crucially – size need to be mixed carefully if you want to maintain competitiveness. We were, for example, very lightweight in the forwards the last day – only Jason Doherty was able to do anything with the direct, early ball being pumped in – so we definitely need to alter the balance there for Páirc Uí Rinn.
The good news, however, is that we should be able to do this. Diarmuid O’Connor returned to the fray off the bench at MacHale Park and Alan Freeman (who was away on a well-deserved holiday) will be available for selection too. Stephen Rochford last week expressed the hope that Aidan O’Shea would also be fit so if that three, as well as Doc, are okay to line out we should be okay in the forwards for Cork. This is bearing in mind that Kevin McLoughlin (who always seems to play well against the Rebels) should also be back and the likes of Mark Ronaldson, Keith Ruttledge, Darren McHale, Conor O’Shea and Brian Reape will also be in the mix. Heck, Evan Regan might even be available too.
Tom Parsons and Jason Gibbons look set to man the engine room and, if they do, that’s a strong pairing. Both of them impressed in pre-season – I thought the pair of them were excellent on Sunday and we should have no worries whatsoever heading into battle with that duo in the middle of the field.
The likely loss of Keith and Kevin at the back is undoubtedly a blow but in Keith’s case it’s no harm that he gets a rest, though admittedly you’d prefer that it wasn’t an enforced one. His absence will, however, force us to look at other options at corner-back and as one who thinks that the Ballyhaunis man should be deployed somewhere else this year then I believe it’s no harm we’re getting to road-test those options now. If it were me, I’d tip young O’Hora in at 4 the next day and see how he handles it.
With Brendan Harrison, Ger Cafferkey, Shane McHale and David Kenny also available we have plenty of other options in the full-back line. In the half-backs, James Horan’s preferred Keegan/Vaughan/Boyle line-up is available, with Caolan Crowe, Shane Nally and, possibly, Stephen Coen (depending on how Holly-Carra get on this weekend) ready for action in this area too.
Between the sticks we have Robbie Hennelly and Matthew Flanagan so no worries there.
All in all, despite the large number of players who aren’t available right now, there’s no reason we can’t put out a strong side against Cork. While some of the experimentation that Stephen Rochford and his selectors will be doing is sure to be of the enforced variety, it also opens the door for others to take full advantage of the opportunity they’re being handed. The more lads that are able to come into the side in this early part of the year and do this, the better.